Pay Tax. Use VPN. Or have no Social Media. The three choices Ugandans have left as the country lashes back in protest against the latest tax.
On the 1st July 2018 Ugandans woke up to blank phone screens, left without messages and notifications from the social media world as the OTT (over – the – top) tax was enforced. This tax has proven to be more than a mere nuisance or a law that’s soon overturned, now in its fourth month the OTT tax is accused of limiting freedom of speech and access to a social space, disproportionately for the poor.
I was among those waking up that morning confused about what we were being taxed for. OTT services are defined as those that offer voice and messaging services through the internet. So we unable to access the likes of WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Google Hangouts, LinkedIN, over 60 platforms in total. Ugandans are expected to pay Shs 200 a day to access these platforms which translates to £0.04p a day, £1.20 a month or £14.60 a year. When you take into account that almost a quarter of the population live under the poverty line, this is a significant proportion of their spending’s.
Protests break out in Uganda – Credit: CNN https://cnn.it/2KLGDLr
Uganda’s frustration soon became apparent, with protests taking place across the country. Angry mobs formed online and in the street, with some being broken up by police using tear gas.
Originally President Museveni wrote to the finance minister describing the tax as a way to ‘cope with the consequences of olugambo [gossiping]’ (BBC 2018). However, the Finance Minister argues the tax is needed to help increase spending on access to electricity, consequently allowing more people to access social media. The tax has also been quoted as a way to decrease government borrowing and aid money. With many reasons being thrown around, it remains to be seen where the estimated Shs 400 billion – Shs 1.5 trillion will be spent.
Unlike limits to the internet seen before in Uganda, this is a monetary restriction, unreasonably affecting the poor as they are more likely to be unable to pay. This tax will reduce the number and demographic of people on social media. This infringes on the concept argued by Castells (2007) that media is a social space where power is decided. As well as Habermas (1998) theory of a Public Sphere where media is a space between the economy and the state where free speech is allowed and opinions can form. Critics of the tax accuse the government of attempting to shut down this space. In reality however this space will not be solely closed through the tax, but only accessed by certain people, those who can pay and those who choose to go online through VPN (Virtual Private Network). This leaves only certain voices apparent in the social media world in Uganda, the heaviest reduction is likely to be the poor, further increasing their lack of voice.
Although there have been various attempts to control mass media worldwide (Castells 2007), this attempt is differentiated through its financial implementation. It is not the first time Ugandans have experienced limited access to social media, with the elections in 2016 bringing two rounds of social media being shut down. In both 2016 and 2017 Uganda was viewed as having a ‘partly free’ media. Despite some Ugandans censoring themselves online to avoid potential harassment, many took to Twitter to voice their outrage through #ThisTaxMustGo and #SocialMediaTax suggesting digital activism is still high. The implications these blocks have on good democracy is significant, the first block in 2016 was during the runup to the presidential election, it significantly reduced the number of opinions online and so access to fair information on the election. It can be argued this block of social media exemplifies a wider decrease in democracy (Colle 2007) , although government insisted it was needed for security reasons.
Uganda may have been the first country to introduce such widespread taxation on social media however, despite the public rage Zimbabwe may well be taking a leaf out of their book. Zimbabwe’s government are choosing to tax internet mobile phone calls at 30 ngwee a day (£0.02). This suggests, unless governments start to listen to the demands of public protest, Uganda’s social media tax could be a sign of a more reduced social space in the media within the region, as well as Uganda itself.
BBC, 2018. ‘Uganda social media tax to be reviewed’. [Online]. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-44798627 [18th October 2018]
Castells, M., 2007. ‘Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society’. International Journal of Communication, 1, pp.237–259.
Colle, R.D., 2007. ‘Advocacy and Interventions: Readings in Communication and Development’. Ithaca, New York: The Internet-First University Press.
Wikipedia, ‘The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere’. [Online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Structural_Transformation_of_the_Public_Sphere [23rd October 2018]